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Far Greater Game in Syria: wide range of actors and perennial clash of interests
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Many experts still consider Central Asia through the prism of the “Great Game” paradigm. Notwithstanding, it does not correspond to up-to-date realities of the region, since local states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are no longer puppets, they themselves establish local rules and there is surge of cooperation, besides competition, between outer powers. However, if it is obsolete to use this “Game” to Central Asia, but it is of utmost topicality to extrapolate it to Syria, since it has undoubtedly been mushroomed into “far Greater Game”, with participation of wider range of actors, and each of them is staunchly geared up to carve out the lion's share.

The situation in Syria resembles Central Asia of the XIX century, when khanates – Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand – not only did not possess sovereignty over foreign policy, but also could not withstand excess of interference of external powers in internal affairs. The lurch for dominance by external actors questions the sovereignty and existence of Syria. For instance, brushing aside inviolability of borders, Turkey has recently intruded on national sovereignty of Syria and seized Kyubat and Atme in the province of Idlib[1]. Such an act is manifestation of classical geopolitics, where Syria is no more than object of international relations, and the fate of which has been decided by external forces.

The “Game” taking place in Syria could easily be designated as “Far Greater”, since as opposed to the “Great Game”, where solely Great Britain and Russian Empire strived to dominate the region, number of “gamers” here is far larger. Not only Russian Empire was replaced by the Russian Federation and Great Britain – by the US, but also Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other actors wedged into whirlpool of struggle. The disposition of these actors to ensconce in Syria, and clash of their interests, generates a “Far Greater Game”. Moreover, in spite of two general conflicting blocs in Syria (first group comprises Russia and Iran that support the regime of Assad and the second one – USA, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and EU, which aspired to regime change, by supporting opposition), diversity of interests and absence of consensus within these parties more exacerbates the situation. Here is a look at collision of interests of major players that shape this “Game” in Syria.


The Munich speech of Vladimir Putin in 2007[2] brought a U-turn in the foreign policy of Russia, the product of which has become wide revisionist approach to the established world order. From that time on, when Putin chose between either economic or strategic interest, he prioritized the strategic one. Syria is the only state in the Middle East where Russia has military footprint. Retreating from this strategic position could signal stepping back in favor of the West, and losing the status of superpower once and for all.

Yet, there is an economic share in Syria: Russia hates enduring competitors in the gas sector. Given the most convenient route for Qatar`s gas towards European market is through Syria, it is better for Russia to keep Syria in chaos or preserve friendly-to-Russia regime, so as not to give Qatar to lay its gas pipeline towards Europe. That is to say, Russia cannot stand new gas player in European market, especially when prices of hydrocarbons are very low.


Although Iran and Russia cooperate in Syria, there is cleavage in some issues. If Putin`s primary goal is to preserve its presence in Syria with or without Bashar al-Assad, then propping the latter up is cornerstone of Iranian involvement in Syria. Iran is more preoccupied with providing existence of Lebanese Shi`a militia group Hezbollah, and Assad is the only one who serves as a bridge between Hezbollah and Iran, who has long guaranteed the militia an arms supply route from Iran and belongs to the Alawite sect, a branch of Shi`a Islam, the dominant faith in Iran. Given this mission is of existential nature, as it unleashes Shi`a proxy war in the Middle East, and hence provides Iran to be engaged in regional issues, Tehran indefatigably supports Bashar al-Assad.   

Withal, there is incompatibility of interests in Kurdish issue. Russia seems to be more pro-Kurdish, what is cause for concern in the establishment of Iran. Indeed, Russia considers Syrian Kurds as vital land force in fight against ISIS. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharov said: “I would like to remind you that Kurdish detachments are the most effective fighting force in the war against ISIS terrorists in northeastern Syria. We were greatly disturbed by reports of Ankara’s series of air strikes on the positions of Kurdish self-defense detachments near Mount Karachok in northeastern Syria and near Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq”[3]. “Moscow has been described as ‘more pro-Kurdish, without consideration for the consequences’, while Tehran worries that greater autonomy for Syrian Kurds might trigger the establishment of independent Kurdish states in Turkey, Iraq and, ultimately, Iran”[4].


The cornerstone of the US policy in Syria is traditionally containing Russia, then, secondarily is fighting terrorism. Notwithstanding the US is not directly involved in Syria (excluding air strikes), it actively provides military support to Kurds in fighting ISIS and “moderate” opposition against the Assad regime. Such a policy gives the Washington leverage over Kurds, which owing to the US support, is becoming sufficient to step up in northern part of Syria, and keeps the country in fissure; and opposition also plays its part in disintegrating Syria. All this is directed to not let Russia gain preponderance in Syria.


Brussels vigorously supports “moderate” opposition, and agitates for overthrowing Assad`s regime, while the US policy “Assad must go” is no longer priority for Washington[5]. However, the EU is not major player in Syria, since “the EU’s internal divisions have given the union little influence on the course of events in Syria”[6]


The primary goal of Ankara is to preserve its territorial integrity, forcing Syrian and Iraqi Kurds back far from territory of Turkey. With almost 20 percent of Kurdish population, Turkey is very concerned over neighboring Kurds of Syria that seek independence. Such an attitude in adjacent country could, allegedly, invigorate centrifugal movement of Turkish Kurds, and in the upshot, the latters could demand autonomy form Ankara. The US support of Kurds irritates Erdogan.  That is why their interests diverge here; and although Turkey is the member of NATO, Ankara and Washington could not be reliable allies in Syrian issue, and Erdogan conducts ambiguous policy, maneuvering between Russia and USA.

Saudi Arabia

Syria is a battleground for Sunni-Shi`a confrontation; and for Riyadh toppling the regime of Assad implies suppressing and disarming Iran in the Mashriq region. It is commonplace that Sunni-Shi`a enmity in the face of Saudi-Iranian confrontation is of lingering nature, which spills over almost onto all the Middle East. Overthrowing Assad is highest goal for Saudi Arabia, since accomplishing this Riyadh could destroy a bridge between Tehran and Hezbollah, and push its perennial ideological enemy back.


In 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention was signed, and Afghanistan became “buffer zone” between these two powers; this was official end of the “Great Game”. In Syria, there were many attempts – ranging from Geneva to Astana Talks – to settle the conflict, or delineate the spheres of influence, but all came to grief. The quintessence of difficulty of settling this conflict is “Far Greater Game” taking place in Syria. It is not Cold War period, when the world was separated into two parts and the conflicts could be resolved by the impulse of two powers – USSR and USA. The disarray in Syria is product of involvement of wide range of actors and incompatibility of their interests and views: Turkey-USA disagreement in Kurdish issue, Russian-Iranian divergence in preserving Bashar al-Assad and supporting Kurds, Saudi-Iranian confrontation and along with this participation of non-state actors as ISIS and other groups. It is less likely that “Far Greater Game” in Syria will end in the near future, since vital interests of players are at stake. And all achieved peace agreements would probably be fragile.

Otabek Akromov is currently a senior student at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, majoring in International Relations. He is a research assistant in Center for Advanced International Studies. His research interests lie in the area of security, religion, anthropology and ideology. Otabek is also a close observer of new trends and developments in Middle East and Central Asia.


[1] Turkey Violating Syrian Sovereignty in Idlib - Syrian Ambassador to Russia. 05 Apr 2017. Retrieved from https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/201704051052304196-syria-turkey-idlib-euhprates/

[2] Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy. 10 Feb 2007. Retrieved from http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/24034

[3] Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, 27 Apr 2017. Retrieved from http://www.mid.ru/en/press_service/spokesman/briefings//asset_publisher/D2wHaWMCU6Od/content/id/2739385 

[4] Tabrizi, B. and Pantucci, R.. Understanding Iran’s Role in the Syrian Conflict. August 2016. Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

[5] Gorka, A. US Shifts Policy on Syria: ‘Assad Must Go’ No Longer a Priority. Strategic Culture Foundation. 05 Apr 2017. Retrieved from https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2017/04/05/us-shifts-policy-syria-assad-must-go-no-longer-priority.html

[6] Pierini, M. “In Search of an EU Role in the Syrian War”. Carnegie Europe. 18 Aug 2016. Retrieved from http://carnegieeurope.eu/2016/08/18/in-search-of-eu-role-in-syrian-war-pub-64352

Comments in Chronological order (3 total comments)

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Tue, July 25, 2017 03:36 AM (about 57876 hours ago)
good job!
Thu, July 27, 2017 12:28 AM (about 57831 hours ago)
Akromov Otabek congratulations from your coursemates IACIR. Wish you good luck bright career.
Thu, July 27, 2017 04:32 AM (about 57827 hours ago)
Thank You so much
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